Intel's new Core i9 chips could make laptops as powerful as desktops

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For years, designers and artists have needed to pick a poison: Buy a desktop with the most powerful components available, or sacrifice some performance for a laptop you could take on your travels. Intel’s new six-core mobile Core i9 chip, its fastest notebook CPU ever, paves the way for 5GHz laptops, making that decision even tougher.

There have been no announcements yet from the likes of Apple, Dell, HP or Lenovo of laptops featuring the chips – but we'd hope to see them in creative-friendly models in the Apple MacBook Pro, Dell XPS 15/Precision, HP Elitebook/ZBook or Lenovo Thinkpad ranges.

Using new 'thermal velocity boost' technology to propel the new Core i9-8950HK from a base clock rate of 2.9GHz to a whopping 4.8GHz, the new unlocked 8th-generation Core i9 sits atop five new Core i5 and Core i7 high-performance mobile H-series chips, plus four more U-series Core chips aimed at lower-power systems. (All are "Coffee Lake" 14nm chips.) Intel also launched a new lineup of desktop Core processors, plus a new branding logo (Core i7+) to indicate the presence of hard drive-boosting Optane memory inside notebook PCs.

Compared to a 7th-generation Core processor, Intel says Core i9 is up to 59 percent faster for 4K video editing. And they offer 68 percent faster photo-editing than a three-year-old system. Since the new Core i9 is unlocked, expect specialist PC makers to release 5GHz systems, Intel executives said. And if Optane memory comes bundled, performance could increase further, though the 7th-gen system Intel used for comparison includes a slower mechanical hard drive rather than an SSD.

"It really is the closest to desktop performance you can get in a notebook," said Fredrik Hamberger, general manager of Intel’s premium and gaming notebooks.

The new mobile Core chips support the software fixes – not the upcoming hardware redesign – that Intel patched in to fix the Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities. The performance numbers reflect the impact of these 'mitigations', executives said.

Intel Core H-series CPUs: Speeds and feeds

Intel’s new 45W H-series parts feature two new Core i7 and Core i5 chips, each, as well as a pair of new Xeons. In fact, the mobile Core i9 chip looks quite a bit like the Xeon E-2186, with identical clock speeds, core counts, thermal design power, and so on. The key, though, is that the Core i9’s clock speeds are totally unlocked. But if that’s too rich for your blood, consider the new Core i7-8850H, which also packs six cores and twelve threads.

All of the new chips also support Intel’s new effort to push Optane memory into notebooks, with optional vPro technology for corporate systems.

Intel’s Core i9 may be its new flagship mobile processor, but you’ll probably buy a more Core i7-H-based machine, assuming that they’re more moderately priced. They have six cores too, though.

While Intel’s Radeon RX Vega ("Kaby Lake-G") chip was designed to offer 1080p performance inside of something that approaches an ultrabook, the new 8th-gen Core i9 chips are designed for what Hamberger called "musclebooks", offering the absolute best performance that you can get on a laptop.

"If this doesn’t get you excited, I don’t know what will," Hamberger said.

This is the first time that Intel has designed a chip with what it’s calling a 'thermal velocity boost', the ability to push the clock speed even higher than normal. Normally, the Core i9-8950HK maxes out at 4.6GHz after the turbo boost kicks in. But if the chip is "really cool and running at full speed, you’ll get a little more," Hamberger said, boosting a single core by 200MHz, to 4.8GHz, or alternatively upclocking all of the cores by about 100MHz, he said.

Hamberger reiterated, though, that the thermal velocity boost was an "opportunistic thing, not an automatic thing", and that Intel had targeted system temperatures of 50 degrees centigrade or below before the boost would kick in.

"We spend a ton of time working with our OEM partners optimising power performance, you name it, tweaking thermals to get more performance," Hamberger said. "We think that’s really the trend, to get more efficient performance into thinner form factors that last longer, not sacrifice performance to get thinnest."

Intel Core U-series CPUs: Speeds and feeds

If you’re looking for something with a little less performance and a little more battery life, Intel also introduced four new U-series chips. These low-power (28W TDP) 8th-gen Core chips all feature the more common 4-core, 8-thread configuration. Note that these, too, support Optane memory technology in the mobile configuration.

All of these will connect to the four new 300-series chipsets that Intel also introduced: H370, H310, Q370, and B360. All of them add more features from a platform level, an Intel spokeswoman said: enhanced audio and I/O, integrated Intel 802.11ac Wi-Fi with gigabit throughput, and 10 Gbit/s integrated Gen2 USB 3.1 I/O.

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